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Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Pope's Exorcist

Gabriele Amorth is perhaps not a name which springs readily to mind when considering the pastoral affairs of the church, but he has a clearly-defined function nevertheless. Father Amorth is exorcist-in-residence to the Vatican, and in this capacity he is reputed to have performed over one hundred and sixty thousand exorcisms in the decades-long practice of his office. The notion of an official exorcist is intriguing in itself, but the mere existence of such an office in the Catholic Church raises questions whose answers are perhaps disturbing.

Whatever their nature, demons belong to the realm of the supernatural. It follows, then, that any claims to know what is actually happening to someone who is possessed, and who is therefore allegedly ‘cured’ by the act of exorcism, falls within the bounds of personal belief. We take these things on trust, and depending on our own beliefs, exorcism is either a first option or a last resort.
As soon as the existence of demons is acknowledged as a literal fact, which it must be in Father Amorth’s case, then we have crossed over a line which separates our everyday reality from the realm of the supernatural. We are in a place which science shuns, for the evidence for such things is not in a form acceptable to science. You cannot put a demon under a microscope. You cannot classify a demon as a species or subspecies. You cannot visit a museum and see a demon with a descriptive label in a glass showcase.

This is not to say that such supernatural entities do not exist; just that rational scientific method is not equipped to deal with them. In short: all such things lie in the realm of belief. As this also includes religious belief, demons would indeed seem to belong in the same province as Father Amorth. Indigenous beliefs would concur with the Vatican: these are worlds in which spirits both good and bad are an accepted part of reality. There are some spirits who wish to help you, there are some who might be uppity and need to be placated with offerings to persuade them to treat you right, and there are others who just want to yank your chain in pursuit of their own dark and inscrutable agendas.

Father Gabriele Amorth, the appointed exorcist to the Vatican. When demons become part of one’s job description it is easy to overlook the fact that, as denizens of the supernatural realm, their actual nature remains an unknown to us. Some cases of attempted exorcism actually seem to exacerbate the situation, leaving the apparently afflicted person worse off than before.
Even this simple comparison is enough to indicate that Father Amorth’s world and the world of (for example) an Amazon Basin tribal community are not as far removed from each other as we might at first assume. The differences are in the trappings of external appearances, but the interactions with such forces, and what those interactions involve, are much the same. Both priest and shaman petition a higher power for aid in such a situation, and communicate directly with these lower forces during the exorcism. During his term in office Pope John Paul II allegedly performed three exorcisms, and his successor Pope Benedict XVI increased the number of Catholic-sponsored exorcists globally. An exorcist is still an exorcist, and an exorcist functions as an intermediary between these realities, whether in the rain forest or in the marble corridors of the Vatican.

 Taita Querubin Queta. As the widely-respected spiritual leader and shaman healer of the Cófan people of Colombia, Taita Querubin Queta not only acts as intermediary on behalf of his people to the world of the spirits, but also to global representatives at the United Nations and other institutions, where he speaks to raise awareness of the pressures which the Cófan face from outside cultures.
Apparently Father Amorth also instructs bishops on how to distinguish cases of genuine possession from those individuals in need of psychiatric help, and refuses to perform an exorcism upon those whom he considers to be faking the symptoms. As far as I have been able to determine, and for all his dealings with these claimed supernatural entities, Father Amorth himself has no credentials whatever that would allow him to make such a professional judgement call. Even a qualified and experienced [1]psychiatrist whom I have seen interviewed admitted that it is at times extremely easy to be persuaded by someone who is afflicted with some form of mental psychopathy that they are in fact entirely reformed. Many such individuals can – and do – go their whole lives functioning in society to a greater or lesser degree. We have to wonder how many of those who have needed an entirely different sort of treatment have slipped through the net to be blessed with holy water rather than with symptom-reducing medication.

The first card used in the series of the Rorschach inkblot psychology test. There are no right or wrong answers to what these randomly created images might be. As with religious belief, individuals will see their own truth, and the evaluation of that subjective truth might indicate some form of emotional dysfunction or psychosis.
The Vatican’s resident exorcist certainly has his opinions about other matters. He has stated that he considers the Harry Potter stories harmful because of their magic elements, giving his reason as making no distinction between white and black magic, because all magic is “…a turn to the Devil”. It strikes me that the line between true magic and exorcism, if it exists at all, is a distinctly blurred one, although the priest seems not to be aware of this particular irony. Harry Potter is perhaps a relatively harmless target, but where things become several shades less politically (and morally) correct are his views on Hindu beliefs and yoga. These beliefs and practices are, says the priest, “Satanic”, because “…all Eastern religions are based on a false belief in [2]reincarnation.” I would suggest to Father Amorth in particular, and to the offices of the Vatican in general, that widespread and endemic pedophilia by the Catholic priesthood is somewhat more likely to be weighed as the heavier evil when the Last Trump sounds than these sincere expressions of another faith.

Meditation as a form of yoga. Studies have indicated that consistent meditation appears to increase emotional empathy and compassion, with the appropriate areas of neural activity in the brain showing increased sensitivity. The practice of yoga is reported to have multiple health benefits, on the heart, on blood pressure, and on regular sleep patterns.
Acknowledging the existence of demons, and therefore of Satan, opens up an ethical question over which philosophers and theologians have furrowed their brows for centuries, namely: does evil exist of itself? Are some people just ‘bad’, or is there darker stuff involved? We must each decide for ourselves what the answer might be, but the problem about accepting these things as real, whether they are so or not, is that our beliefs make them real to us individually. Father Gabriele Amorth claims to have performed in excess of 160,000 exorcisms during the course of his long term of office. Assuming that all those circumstances were and are real, there could well be a small army of seriously disgruntled demons waiting on the other side just jumping for the chance to even the score with the man who gave them all the push. In Father Amorth’s shoes, I for one would not fancy such a prospect.  

Postscript: In concluding this post I feel the necessity to emphasize that it is often the things we take for granted which are the least understood. We confidently use such terms as 'demon', 'spirit', 'ghost', 'poltergeist', 'elemental', etc. as if we know what these entities are, how they differ from each other, and what their precise nature and purpose is. We do not. Any attempts to define what the supernatural is, and the various forms in which it appears to manifest itself, remain speculative. It is our beliefs which lend these things an aura of familiarity, of belonging to phenomena that we can classify, as if they were different types of lightning or clouds or other phenomena of the natural world. But the paranormal, like death, is an unknown. Who knows what Father Amorth and others like him have been dealing with, and who knows what truly takes place during an exorcism, and what the real consequences are?

[1] Dr. Tom Powell in an interview with the BBC in the documentary Psychopath.

[2] The Eastern belief that the reincarnating soul occupies a succession of corporeal bodies, known as saṃsāra, is also found in Ancient Greece in the writings of Plato, where it is known as transmigration, and in many indigenous cultures as well as in some contemporary beliefs such as Theosophy. The orthodox forms of Christianity, Judaism and Islam reject the concept of reincarnation, although individuals within these religions accept it, and the mystic forms of these religions such as the Kabbalah, Gnosticism, Catharism and some branches of Sufism also accept the concept. 

David Goldenberg: 10 Secrets of the Vatican Exposed, in The Week, March 13, 2013. Retrieved March 31, 2015.
Nick Pisa: Hitler and Stalin were possessed by the Devil, says Vatican exorcist, in The Mail Online, August 2006. Retrieved March 31, 2015.
Nick Squires: Harry Potter and yoga are evil, says Catholic Church exorcist, in The Telegraph, November 25, 2011. Retrieved March 31, 2015.
Ron Dicker: Gabriele Amorth, Catholic Priest And Exorcist, Says He’s Done More Than 160,000 Exorcisms, in The Huffington Post, May 21, 2013. Retrieved March 31, 2015.

Image of Father Gabriele Amorth adapted from a photo by Stephen Driscoll for CNA. Images of Taita Querubin Queta and yoga meditation adapted from photos from uncredited sources. The Rorschach test card is in the public domain. Demon painted for this post by Hawkwood for the ©David Bergen Studio.

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